Friday, June 3, 2011

The Global Travel and Tourism Summit

WTTC is one of those abbreviations you wouldn't know unless you are in the travel biz, but it's well-known within the industry and stands for World Travel & Tourism Council. Why is it important? The organization crunches numbers, follows trends in travel, advocates for improvements in the travel experience for consumers and once a year holds a big meeting that it calls the Global Travel & Tourism Summit.

The summit, which brings together CEOs from 100 big travel-business companies with journalists, tour operators, hoteliers, airline executives and members of local, state and national tourism boards, was held recently in Las Vegas. This was the first time it's been in the United States since 2006. Maybe it was the U.S. location, but this year's conference, which I attended, was preoccupied with two things: finding a balance between convenience and security in travel and gaining some respect from politicians for the job-creating prowess and revenue-generating power of travel and tourism.

Many were the complaints about how hard travel visas are to get for would-be travelers to the U.S., especially people from non-visa waiver countries like Brazil and Chile, and countries that Washington thinks may pose a threat to American national security, meaning not only - but especially - Muslim countries.

"If it takes 30 to 100 days to wait for a U.S. visa, maybe you're going elsewhere,'' observed U.S. Travel Assocation head Roger Dow. Dow suggested streamlining the process (which is analyzed online at the Web site www.smartervisapolicy.org).

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano later said that streamlining may well be needed, but striking the right balance is tricky. "We obviously have a challenge, and we want to keep America safe at the same time,'' she told the audience in the convention center at Aria Resort and Casino.

All the more reason to finally implement oft-mooted, long-delayed trusted traveler programs for road warriors willing to submit to advance background checks, industry execs said. We're working on it, Napolitano replied, in so many words.

The WTTC also released a study at the global summit - its 11th annual meeting - that the organization said shows fully 9 percent of global GDP is derived, directly or indirectly, from tourism and travel, especially business travel. The study, conducted by the private firm Oxford Economics, concludes that travel and tourism is a major driver of world trade - hence the industry should get a good deal more respect from governments around the world. The study was commissioned by American Express, the Singapore Tourism Board, the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority and the U.S. Travel Association - organizations committed to the promotion of travel - so this should be taken into account when its conclusions are used to make the industry's case to officialdom.

Indeed, the travel-biz's characterization of itself makes it sound like the Rodney Dangerfield of global businesses. Why, the U.S. doesn't even have a minister of tourism, many attendees complained in apparent wonderment. They found a semi-sympathetic ear in Valerie Jarrett, a close confidant and senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama, who promised to carry their message to the White House from the summit, which she addressed. Also on hand was U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who reiterated Obama's commitment to restoring America's roads, bridges and airports and expanding its light-rail and high-speed rail options.

Problems are never solved - and can't be - at big meetings like this; all people can do is air their grievances, float their ideas and try to advance the conversation. This is basically what happened in Las Vegas, where attendees took time out from sightseeing and gaming to air the issues of the day. In short, it was a talkfest, but talk about the security conundrum and other issues may lead over time to progress that travelers, themselves, will notice in the air and on the road.

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